Tokyo Olympics Analysis (U.S. Men): Dressel Shines, Finke Stuns on Biggest Stage

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 50m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Caeleb Dressel after winning Olympic gold in the 50 freestyle -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Tokyo Olympics Analysis (U.S. Men): Dressel Shines, Finke Stuns on Biggest Stage

For the first 85 meters of the 100 freestyle final, Caeleb Dressel breathed every stroke to his left side as he opened up a big lead. But when he passed the red buoy on the lane marking 15 meters to go, Dressel put his head down and spun. Gold or bust.

Dressel got it done, touching six hundredths ahead of Australian rival Kyle Chalmers for his first individual Olympic medal, gold. At that point, with his hardest individual race out of the way, and the pursuit of at least individual perfection was definitely within his capabilities. Indeed, Dressel held off Kristof Milak for gold in the 100 fly and produced the largest margin of victory ever in the 50 free. He finished the meet with five golds and a spot in history, capturing the attention of a U.S. general public only now appreciating Dressel’s greatness that swimming fans have watched and appreciated on the NCAA level and the World Championships level for years.

His first and last golds of the week came as part of U.S. relay efforts in the men’s 400 free relay and men’s 400 medley relay, and while he anchored the mixed 400 medley relay to fifth, poor strategic decision and not swimmer performances doomed that relay.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ryan Murphy (USA) and Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrate after winning the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Murphy, left, and Caeleb Dressel after the U.S. men’s medley relay win — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

So Dressel was the star. But beyond the 24-year-old superstar from Florida, the ability of his U.S. men’s team to win a bunch of medals in the first Olympics without Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte was in question. Realistic projections saw just four American men winning individual medals in Tokyo: Dressel, IMer Chase Kalisz, backstroker Ryan Murphy and first-time Olympian Michael Andrew. In comparison, 11 American men stood on the podium by themselves five years earlier in Rio.

As it turns out, there were six American men’s medalists. On day one, Jay Litherland used an amazing surge on the final length to capture silver behind Kalisz in the 400 IM, and Kieran Smith hung on in an extremely tight 400 freestyle final to earn bronze. Murphy did not repeat as Olympic champion in the backstroke events, but he made the medal podium in both.

And some guy named Bobby Finke was pretty fast on the last length in the 800 and 1500 freestyle finals.

The Americans ended up with six individual men’s gold medals, one more than in Rio, but only 10 total medals compared to 14 at the prior Games. They missed the podium entirely in five events, compared to just one in 2016. Plus, in a not-entirely-unexpected but still-avoidable finish, the American men took fourth in the 800 free relay, missing the podium in an Olympic relay for the first time ever.

While the U.S. men captured more golds than the U.S. women — eight (including relays) to three — the women’s team was stronger and more well-rounded and is better set up to move forward into the future. The men? Dressel’s historic performance covers up some significant flaws. Let’s go stroke-by-stroke to determine what went well and what was disappointing.

Freestyle

Here, the Americans matched or exceeded all expectations. In the sprints, Caeleb Dressel was twice golden. Michael Andrew took fourth in the 50 free, and Zach Apple missed the 100 free final, but he was brilliant anchoring the 400 free and medley relays to gold. The 200 free, considered a trouble spot for the U.S., saw massive improvements this year as Kieran Smith continuously improved his best time and eventually dropped into the 1:44 range, becoming the third-fastest American ever behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

After months of discussion about whether the 800 free relay would become the first U.S. relay to miss the podium at the Olympics, that’s exactly what did happen, largely because of a gamble to use Apple on the third leg that did not pay off. But finally, after years of stagnation, the event is pointing up for the U.S., largely because of Smith’s improvement and swimmers like Drew Kibler who made big improvements in 2021.

bobby finke, 1500 freestyle, tokyo olympics

Bobby Finke after capturing Olympic gold in the 1500 free — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

In the longer freestyles, another big recent talking point was the unprecedented situation of just one American man making the “A” cut in the 400 free before Jake Mitchell did so in a solo swim-off at Olympic Trials. In Tokyo, both Smith and Mitchell made the 400 free final, and after Smith promised he would raise his swimming to match the level of his competition in Tokyo, he did just that on his way to a bronze medal. Smith’s results had him on track to be the most impressive performer on the team halfway through the meet, at least until another Florida Gator stole his thunder.

Look, Bobby Finke was a medal contender in the distance races prior to the Olympics, particularly in the 1500 free after a 14:46.06 at Olympic Trials. Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri might not be at his best following a bout of mononucleosis, so maybe Finke could take advantage. But winning two gold medals, overcoming huge deficits on the final length with splits of 26.39 (!!) in the 800 and 25.78 (!!!) in the 1500? Absolutely stunning. Every Olympics brings at least one total shock for Team USA, and for Tokyo, Finke was it.

Backstroke

Here, Ryan Murphy made a return to the Olympic podium with bronze in the 100 back and silver in the 200 back, but as the defending gold medalist in the events, he definitely had been hoping for more, particularly in the two-lap race. Compounding his frustrations was the fact that all the swimmers who beat him in an individual event were representing a country (Russia) banned from the Olympics for a state-sponsored doping program.

Murphy was his usual solid, consistent self on the leadoff leg of both medley relays (the mixed relay fiasco certainly not his fault), and after Hunter Armstrong (100) and Bryce Mefford (200) swam impressive races to take second behind Murph at Trials, Mefford managed to back that up with a fourth-place swim in Tokyo, while Armstrong had a tough go in his first major international meet, barely qualifying for the 100 back semifinal. Armstrong’s Tokyo best of 53.21 was more than seven tenths off his Trials time of 52.48.

Breaststroke

michael andrew, tokyo olympics

Michael Andrew — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

The Americans had not won a medal in a global-level breaststroke race since the 2017 World Championships, and Tokyo brought more letdown here. Michael Andrew had medal hopes in the 100 breast, but he could not get within a half-second of his American record of 58.14 from Trials and ended up fourth. Nic Fink was an outside medal contender in the 200 breast but ended up fifth. Andrew Wilson took eighth in the 100 breast and missed the semifinals in the 200 breast.

However, after a rocky week at his first Olympics, credit to Andrew for bringing his A game on the 400 medley relay at the end of the week. Despite questions of the U.S. coaches turning to Fink instead, Andrew managed a 58.49 split that kept the United States close to Great Britain and Adam Peaty, close enough that the last two legs were able to close out a gold medal.

Butterfly

The Americans expected one medal in butterfly, and indeed, Caeleb Dressel delivered gold in the 100 fly and lowered his world record to 49.45 (despite a glide into the turn and a very long finish). He needed almost every bit of that to hold off Kristof Milak, who was closing the race harder than even Michael Phelps ever did.

Aside from Dressel, the retiring Gunnar Bentz finished seventh in the 200 fly final while Zach Harting (200 fly) and Tom Shields (100 fly) were both eliminated in the semifinals. Such has been the reality of American men’s butterfly since Phelps retired following the 2016 Games, with no real medal contenders emerging. Michael Andrew’s 100 fly best time this year was only 0.06 off Noe Ponti’s bronze-medal winning time, but that was never a realistic possibility for Tokyo with Andrew’s busy event schedule at the end of the meet.

With only three years until the next Olympics in Paris, the Americans will continue searching for help in butterfly. Maybe Trenton Julian, who recorded the seventh-fastest time in the world in the 200 fly Tuesday, will play a role in that, but 1:54.71 is not quite on the elite level yet.

Individual Medley

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Jay Litherland (USA) and Chase Kalisz (USA) celebrate after the men's 400m individual medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Jay Litherland, left, and Chase Kalisz after the U.S. 1-2 finish in the men’s 400 IM — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. IM performance in Tokyo is a tale of two extremes. Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland finished gold-silver in a shockingly slow 400 IM final to open the meet, and that gave the Americans an initial spark. But by the time the 200 IM rolled around, it was a different story. Kalisz, the 2017 world champion in the event, dropped to a very disappointing 12th. Michael Andrew, who held the world’s fastest time prior to Tokyo, faded to fifth in the final, more than two seconds off his best time.

Going forward, Andrew will certainly face questions about the 200 IM, despite his obvious talent, since he has the propensity to touch well under world-record pace at the 150-meter mark but then fade badly on the freestyle leg. His last 50 split in the Tokyo final was 30.69, the slowest in the field by one-and-a-half-seconds and more than three seconds behind the split of gold medalist Wang Shun.

In the future, Carson Foster looks to be the standard-bearer for the U.S. in the 400 IM. He swam the world’s fastest time (4:08.46) just 24 hours before the Olympic final, where no one beat that mark. But the 200 IM looks a little more murky with the uncertainty about Andrew following his Tokyo disappointment in the event.

Overall

Caeleb Dressel was all he was hyped up to be. Bobby Finke was one of the breakout stars of the Tokyo Games. Kieran Smith only left Tokyo with one medal, but he showed something in rising to the Olympic level with his performances. With that trio of Florida Gators, the Americans are feeling understandably excellent about the freestyle events. In the free relays, the 400 free relay remained on top and despite the disappointment of finishing fourth in the 800 free relay, there are some building blocks.

Ryan Murphy remains as the key building block in backstroke, and the future has some promise in the IM events, but breaststroke and butterfly (aside from Dressel) continue to look not great for the United States. There are no obvious waiting-in-the-wings candidates in these events like Carson Foster in the 400 IM.

After a normal Olympics, it doesn’t make sense to look too far ahead, but the 2024 Paris Olympics are just three years away. Maybe that’s still too early, but the comparison is the U.S. women’s team, whose 10 teenagers gained huge and valuable experience in Tokyo that many will likely bring back onto the team in 2024. The only teenager on the men’s team in Tokyo was Jake Mitchell, who took eighth in the 400 free.

The men might have won more gold medals this year, but the women’s team is positioned well across the board peering ahead a few years. Many of the Tokyo stars are likely to return and again contend for gold medals in Paris, but as for the rest of the team, let’s see how these next few years unfold.

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